As American Pharoah prepares for his chance to become just the 12th horse in history, and first in 37 years, to win horse racing's Triple Crown, experts are lining up to explain why it has become so hard to win.
Most observers assert that today’s thoroughbreds are bred for precocious speed, and not suited for either the 1 ½ mile distance of the Belmont Stakes or three tough races in five weeks.
We have analyzed 19 horses who won two legs of the Triple Crown since Affirmed last won it in 1978. (note: the article links to replays of, and contemporary commentary about, most of the relevant races).
We concluded that only four of these 19 horses failed to win the Triple Crown because they could not negotiate the distance of the Belmont Stakes or the grind of three tough races in five weeks. The remaining 15 horses lost their shot at immortality for the same reasons that have been preventing great horses from winning the Triple Crown for the past century.
Of these 19, 12 came to New York with a shot at the Triple Crown, after wins in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. Another 7 horses in this span won the Belmont Stakes and another leg of the Triple Crown, but lost the Derby or the Preakness.
Of the 12 to falter in the Belmont Stakes, only four were clearly impacted by the distance of the Belmont and/or the Triple Crown grind: War Emblem, Funny Cide, Big Brown and California Chrome. Northern Dancer met a similar fate in 1964, as did Majestic Prince in 1969.
Seven of the remaining 8 to lose at Belmont ran very well there and suffered fairly narrow losses, arguably as a result of questionable race riding tactics. When a Triple Crown is on the line, the pressure forces a jockey to pursue pacesetters earlier than he or she might in an ordinary race. These cases show that the biggest strain of a Triple Crown chase may be the one placed on the humans associated with the horse.
In hindsight, the masterful ride of young Steve Cauthen aboard Affirmed becomes all the more impressive, and the pressure on American Pharoah's jockey Victor Espinoza, increases (although this is his third try at a Triple Crown).
A look at the 7 horses who endured questionable riding tactics:
- In 1978, the trainer of Spectacular Bid, Buddy Delp told people it would take an "Act of God" for the horse to lose, and flippantly predicted that he would win by 32 lengths. He was chasing the legend of Secretariat. Spectacular Bid entered the backstretch second behind 80-1 shot Gallant Best, and jockey Ronnie Franklin sent Spectacular Bid surging to the lead. Coastal engaged him in the stretch, and Bid had nothing left.
- In 1981, Pleasant Colony's jockey failed to press the slow pace of longshot Summing, reserving his energy for the seemingly more talented closers behind him. Pleasant Colony could not run down the pacesetters, and finished third.
- In 1989, Sunday Silence won the Derby and Preakness over Easy Goer. In the Belmont, Le Voyageur, a regally bred foreign horse (by Seattle Slew out of Davona Dale, herself a Filly Triple Crown winner), set a strong pace. With a Triple Crown on the line, Sunday Silence’s jockey Pat Valenzuela was forced to attack this unknown front runner entering the far turn; Easy Goer’s Pat Day was able to lay in wait and made a single explosive run entering the stretch and pulled away to an easy victory.
- In 1997, Silver Charm won the Derby in a thrilling three-way duel with Free House and Captain Bodgit, and the Preakness by a nose over Captain Bodgit. With Captain Bodgit sidelined, Silver Charm focused on outdueling Free House into the stretch of the Belmont, only to yield the lead in the final fifty yards to Touch Gold, who had the luxury of waiting till the final yards to strike.
- In 1998, Kent Desormeaux prematurely sent Real Quiet to a commanding lead into the upper stretch, but was nipped at the wire by a fast-closing Victory Gallop.
- In 1999, Charismatic was forced to confront the talented filly, Silver Bullet Day, through challenging fractions. He led with a furlong to go but was caught by longshot Lemon Drop Kid. An alternative view is that Charismatic's loss is more fairly attributable to an injury suffered in the race - a fate shared by Tim Tam in 1958, and Carry Back in 1961.
- In 2004, undefeated Smarty Jones faced a phalanx of talented challengers. After a sensible first half mile, Smarty Jones took on Purge, the frontrunner who had a legitimate shot. Right as Smarty Jones passed Purge, he was engaged by Eddington, and then Rock Hard Ten. He ran a grueling three-quarter mile segment of the race more than a second faster than Secretariat had. Unlike Secretariat, Smarty Jones staggered in the final 70 yards and was collared by Birdstone, the only horse in the race who sat out the furious fray on the backstretch.
In 1987, Alysheba lost not to the 12 furlongs, but to New York's then-strict anti-drug rules for horses. Alysheba required the diuretic drug Lasix to perform at his best, and it was banned in New York at the time. The hot, muggy Belmont day ensured that Alysheba would not run his best, and Bet Twice won the race by nearly 15 lengths. This was the first of three losses in a row for Alysheba - all without Lasix.
Of the seven horses who won two legs of the Triple Crown, including the Belmont, since 1978:
- Risen Star, Point Given and Afleet Alex were by far the best of their crop, but suffered tough trips in the Kentucky Derby, then went on to resounding victories in the Preakness and Belmont. Empire Maker and Lookin at Lucky are two others who may have won two legs after tough trips in the Derby, but elected to skip one of the legs with no Triple Crown possibility (something that Gallant Man also did in 1957). While surely tough trips in the Derby as more commonplace now that the race has a full field of 20 nearly every year, a rough Derby journey also cost the great Native Dancer a shot a Triple Crown glory in 1953, as well as Little Current in 1974. Each went on to resounding wins in the Preakness and Belmont Stakes.
- Thunder Gulch, Hansel and Swale simply came up empty in the Derby or the Preakness, a fate that felled Damascus in the 1967 Kentucky Derby.
- Tabasco Cat arguably lost the 1994 Kentucky Derby due to track conditions - the same fate that cost Riva Ridge the Preakness in 1972.
In 2001, Laura Hillenbrand, author of Seabiscuit, wrote in an op-ed for The New York Times,
“In 1973, the racing world was haunted by a mood similar to that felt today. A quarter century had passed since the coming of the last Triple Crown winner, Citation. Fans wondered if they would ever see another horse sweep the series. Then, on June 9, a red colossus named Secretariat roared down the Belmont homestretch on an awesome 31-length lead, winning the Triple Crown in world-record time…. Those who worry that we may never see this again should be patient. True greatness is extremely rare; the next Triple Crown winner will be worth the wait.”
Will we see true greatness on June 6? I think we will.
Are you attending this year's Belmont Stakes? Read our Insider's Guide to Attending the Belmont Stakes.
Want to relive Secretariat's 1973 triumph? Read our "On This Day" article about it.